Building Sites: Weiss/Manfredi’s Utzon Lecture at UNSW

Anuradha Chatterjee, Sydney Correspondent

Weiss/Manfredi (led by Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi) – a New York City based multidisciplinary design practice known for their integration of architecture, art, infrastructure, and landscape design – delivered the Utzon Lecture Series Talk, Inhabiting Topography. Weiss/Manfredi has been awarded North America’s ‘Emerging Voices’ by the Architectural League of New York and the New York City AIA Gold Medal of Honor. Opening the talk by acknowledging the debt to Romaldo Giurgola’s scheme for Canberra (gained through Manfredi’s experience at Mitchell/ Girugola in NY), they introduced the key idea underpinning their work: “Sites are not given but made”, topographies are invented to foster public life; and that there is no such thing as the ideal site. The creation of the public realm then goes hand in hand with thinking of systems of drainage and flood patterns or highways and railways, thus giving rise to their approach – infrastructural topography.

Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, Photo: Shuli Sadé Studio

Through the presentation of ten projects – Women’s Memorial and Education Centre, Museum of the Earth, Smith College Campus Center, International Retreat, Barnard College Diana Center, Hunters Point South Waterfront Park, Taekwondo Park, Brooklyn Botanic Garden Visitor Center, Sylvan Grove, Seattle Art Museum: Olympic Sculpture Park – Weiss and Manfredi presented the following approaches to crafting the public realm: Building as landscape and hence consisting of floor plates that slip in and out, over and under, to engage the peripheral vision of occupants; Juxtaposition of interior, exterior spaces, and in between spaces; Façade design that registers on the exterior surface the changing quality of light during the day as well as deflects, transforms, and draws into the interior the light through glass walls, vertical mullions, shaded walkways and skylights; Introduction of a theatrical quality of seeing and being seen as the essence of occupying the landscape of urban life; and Sustainable strategies for combining aesthetic form of the ground and roof cover with its ethical performance by introducing water harvesting and solar panels.

Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, Utzon Lecture Series: Inhabiting Topography 22 August 2012, University of New South Wales, Photo: Faculty of Built Environment, UNSW

Weiss and Manfredi close the talk by discussing the Seattle Art Museum, which was a complex and dynamic re-crafting of three disconnected sites (industrial site at the water’s edge) through a process of folding back and forth down to the waterfront. The journey through the landscape stitches the fragmented sites together to provide the experience of sculptural art. What comes through very clearly in the presentation of their body of work is the blurring of disciplinary boundaries. Their work is committed to simultaneous agendas of ecology, infrastructure planning, urban design, landscape, architecture, and interior. It is not a box ticking exercise, as all these commitments are filtered through community, identity, and local history, which gives the projects their civic orientation. The experiential dimension of their projects, notes Manfredi, is underpinned by a cinematic quality. This highlights not only the element of surprise and discovery, but also the dynamic, layered, and grafted quality of urban experience. Composed entirely a monochrome palette and forms that hark back to High Modernism, Weiss/Manfredi’s projects are perhaps deliberately low on visual delight, as they provide the backdrop as well as the terrain for the performance of civic life, which is what animates their architecture.

Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, Utzon Lecture Series: Inhabiting Topography 22 August 2012, University of New South Wales, Photo: Faculty of Built Environment, UNSW

Weiss and Manfredi’s brief but meaningful contribution in Sydney and UNSW is well timed because Sydney (as well as design studios in the city’s various Universities) are engaged with challenges and approaches pertaining to the crafting of public realms, the urgency of which is observable in the development of Central Park, now under construction (www.centralparksydney.com); launch of the Green Square Library & Plaza Design Competition (www.greensquarelibrary.com.au); Design Parramatta, a collaborative project between Parramatta City Council and the NSW Government Architects Office (www.designparramatta.com.au); and more recently, Super Sydney that taps into people’s vision of Sydney from the city’s 41 council areas (www.supersydney.org).

Weiss/Manfredi’s works are published in Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, Weiss/Manfredi: Surface/subsurface (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2008); Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi, Site specific: The work of Weiss/Manfredi Architects (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2000).

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